Formula 51

on October 18, 2002 by Wade Major
A legend in Hong Kong for such classics as "The Bride With White Hair" and "Phantom Lover," director Ronny Yu has become largely a journeyman filmmaker in Hollywood, lending his trademark visual flair to the family fantasy "Warriors of Virtue" as well as the campy horror fave "Bride of Chucky." With "Formula 51," known overseas as "The 51st State," Yu enters Guy Ritchie territory, trafficking in nearly all the same subjects and themes and with much of the same stylistic embellishment as Ritchie's "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." It's ultimately not as clever or as organic as Ritchie's work--one feels the burden of living up to the inevitable comparisons--but the energy of star Samuel L. Jackson manages to carry the film through its lulls, even occasionally enhancing its bright spots to yield a frenetic effort which, though wildly uneven, is at best vacuous fun, at worst amiably tolerable.

The plot centers around the creation of a new super-narcotic by chemical mastermind Elmo McElroy (Jackson) for a lunatic drug kingpin known as "The Lizard" (Meat Loaf). Elmo, however, has interest in other quarters--namely Liverpool--but can't field offers as long as Lizard is in the picture. After rigging a booby-trap to take out the Lizard and his syndicate, Elmo zips across the Atlantic to meet with his new buyer. The Lizard, however, survives Elmo's trap and hires a female assassin (Emily Mortimer) to sniff out his trail which, as it turns out, leads straight to a mouthy thug named Felix (Robert Carlyle) who just happens to be her ex-boyfriend. From here things get monstrously messy as an assortment of greedy parties all enter the fray, each equally determined to get a piece of Elmo's lucrative narcotics pie: Corrupt cops, dim-witted skinheads and yet another rival drug dealer (Rhys Ifans) all intersecting and bisecting each other's paths at the most inopportune times.

Though none of it makes much sense and frequently stretches credibility well past the point of acceptability, it's hard to dislike the energy with which "Formula 51" has been made. Yu and Jackson, who executive produced, don't seem to care about anything other than having a good time. The more extreme and excessive, the better. And if it happens to make sense along the way, fine. The humor is unapologetically lowbrow; writer Stel Pavlou clearly has no compunction about scraping the bottom of the barrel if it means getting a laugh or making the audience squirm, qualities that also permeate Ritchie's films, albeit with less gratuitous intent.

Though the film rides primarily on the antics of its mostly male cast, it's Mortimer who stands apart as its most engaging presence--a capable actress who plays her part with impressive sobriety considering the extremes with which Yu surrounds her. A luminous presence who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Demi Moore, Mortimer here exhibits the kind of poise that almost always heralds the emergence of a genuine star. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Meat Loaf, Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, Emily Mortimer and Sean Pertwee. Directed by Ronny Yu. Written by Stel Pavlou. Produced by Jonathan Debin, Andras Hamori, Malcolm Kohll, Seaton McLean and David Pupkewitz. A Screen Gems release. Action/Comedy. Rated R for strong violence, language, drug content and some sexuality. Running time: 91 min

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